Voices from the Sea

Wreckers and Bitefingers

About the Blogger:  Janet Angles is an avid seeker of local stories and has volunteered with the RNLI where she participated in recording spoken histories of the lifeboat rescues.  She moved to Wells 2001 and has contributed to the historical preservation of coastal life in Norfolk.

If you should ever search for information about the people who set out to lure ships ashore in order to plunder their cargoes, you will find plenty about the Cornish and other south western areas of England, but very little about the Norfolk coast.

On the east coast, we don’t have rocks to rip away the hulls of these ships but what we have are sandbanks and they can be as destructive to sailing ships as rocks.

If a ship were to run abound onto a sandbank, the action of the sea against the hull would soon weaken the Bessel and cause it to break up.  If it was close to the shore, any survivors and bodies would be swept ashore and deposited on the beach where they would be fair game for any beach comber searching for anything of value.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, if a ship was seen to be foundering close to the shore that would bring the population to the beach with pickaxes and other tools in order to break up the vessel to obtain anything of value.  Unfortunately, at that time, the law stated that salvage could not be claimed while there were living people aboard so things were not too good for any survivors still aboard.

It is thought that false lights were used in order that the ship could be lured into dangerous waters and in 2005 the BBC made a documentary for the “Coast” series, which successfully replicated the conditions of the false light wrecking to see whether it could be done. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mvlc It was found that it would work on a dark night with a solitary candle on the shore.  The crew of the targeted vessel would react in panic, thinking they were too close to the shore and turn away into dangerous waters.

Jewellery and other items of value would be removed from the dead and dying on the beach and if a ring could not be removed easily, then a knife was used to cut off the finger – or if that was not available, the finger would be bitten off.  It is believed that in 1707, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovel was washed ashore when his flagship the ‘Association’ was wrecked as the fleet were heading for home after the campaign of Toulon and passing close to the Scilly Islands. He wore a large emerald ring and this caught the eye of a woman on shore.  Although he was still alive, she is reputed to have bitten his finger off to obtain his ring whereas he was re ported to have died from blood poisoning as a result.  The woman confessed to this as she lay on her death bead, and the ring was thought to have been returned to the Admiral’s family.  However, as this was a deathbed confession, it was never possible to verify so it may just be a gruesome myth.

However, if you talk to anyone who has lived in Wells all their life, they will tell you that the bite fingers really existed and that the practise was carried on here as in other coastal areas where dangers might lurk if the vessel’s navigator was unwise enough to come to close to the shore.

A Good Haven

Richard Heffer reminiscences of living in and around Wells.

About Richard Heffer.  Actor Richard was born on July 28, 1946 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England. He is an actor, known for Women in Love (1969), Colditz (1972) and Possession (2002). Richard has lived in and around Wells for decades and always comes back to visit with the close friends he has on the North Norfolk Coast.

Richard Heffer has a long, illustrious and varied career in Film, TV, Theatre and Radio and a long association with Wells, going back to when he was a boy. Richard can remember when there was a cinema and when going to see a film in Wells was a big event. Richard remembers living in Wells when the Globe was just a little pub, and his garden backing onto the Globe, “when friends came over, I used to be able to go through a little gate in the fence to get a jug filled with beer”.  “The Crown wasn’t much bigger back then either, it had a lovely, almost romantic smell of old hotels, tobacco smoke and good old brown food”.  These were clearly the days before the smoking ban and the lively selection of food and watering holes we have now.

At one time Richard owned one of the whelk sheds on the east end of the Quay and used it as a staging post for all sorts of activities connected with the sea. Sailing, beach walks and fishing trips or just strolling through the sandy creaks collecting cockles. There is always the opportunity, if you’re careful and respectful of the tides, to go out onto the marshes for a fresh perspective on everything that gets left back on the shore. To pick up some flotsam and jetsam for the windowsill at home and to feel the sand between your toes.

In the 80’s and 90’s Richard restored a 50ft King’s Lynn shrimper, the Rob-Pete was built in King’s Lynn in 1926, it was a local boat and in 1994, she was re-launched off the slipway next to the quay, just like they used to in the days when Wells was a bustling shipping port.

Familiar with the history of Wells, Richard explained how the town was once a Haven for coastal shipping and merchant ships. Richard remembers Wells as a “bonded community” of good people. He remarks how Wells has never been just a holiday destination, it’s always been a thriving town with lots of activity. Although not living here now,  he remembers Wells fondly as a town with a lovely mix of working people, interesting individuals and visitors who love the area, and the sailing club, lifeboat crews, boat builders, fishermen, the Wells racers with their sharpie crews, the shop keepers and owners, potters, the primary school and high school, pubs and working man’s clubs, all make Wells a special place.

Richard’s memories of the Maltings are equally fond. He attended film nights with talks from the directors, ballet productions and book readings, some events were small and sometimes quite primitive but always with a creative or dramatic edge. There were often small dance troops, fit-up theatre groups, lectures and poetry readings.

Richard sees a continuity through the history of Wells and through the Maltings. He says the plans for the development of the Maltings look exciting. The new buildings will be an asset for Wells and help bring something back to the community. Richard is very much looking forward to a time when he will be able to enjoy some of the entertainment staged in the new Wells Maltings offering entertainment for the whole town in a venue that works for the whole town.